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PORTO VECCHIO, France — The “race” for the white jersey should be one of the most highly contested of this year’s Tour de France, even if most of the favorites say they’re not really taking aim for it.
There are a solid half dozen top-level riders who will be bucking for a spot on the final podium in Paris, yet few admit that they start the Tour racing for a shot at the best younger rider’s prize.
That’s certainly the case for defending white jersey champion Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing).
“I am still eligible for it. It’s not the immediate goal,” said van Garderen, who vows to ride for teammate Cadel Evans. “If it happens, it happens. I’d be happy to take it again.”
Van Garderen rode to fifth overall and became just the third U.S. rider to win the prestigious jersey, joining Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten as American winners of the young rider’s category.
Van Garderen said his priorities are to help Evans and stay close in the GC battle. If he manages to do both, that should put him right back into the white jersey hunt.
“It was a good feeling [on the podium in Paris last year]. It showed me a glimpse of what it would be like to be on the real podium,” van Garderen said. “But I think I’ve got a couple of years before I am ready to do that.”
There are 35 riders in the young rider competition, a relatively high number that further reflects the transition within the peloton as part of a generational charge.
Under current jersey rules, riders are eligible for the white jersey if they are under 26 as of January 1 of the following calendar year.
The young rider’s competition has been around since 1975, when Francesco Moser won the first jersey, and the rules have changed over the years. Initially, it was for first-time Tour riders, and later for neo-pros who had less than three years in the pro peloton.
There was no jersey awarded from 1989 to 1999, but it was brought back in 2000 after the Tour secured a sponsor for the category.
Like the other classification jerseys, a white jersey is awarded daily. And like the yellow jersey, the rider with the fastest time eventually claims the maillot blanc in Paris.
Since its introduction, 29 riders have won the category, yet it’s not common for winners to later go on to win the yellow jersey.
In fact, only six have won the young rider’s prize and later claimed the yellow jersey. Among them are Laurent Fignon, LeMond, Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, Alberto Contador, and Andy Schleck.
Four have won both the white and yellow jerseys in the same year: Fignon in 1983, Ullrich in 1997, Contador in 2007, and Schleck in 2010 (after Contador was disqualified in his clenbuterol case).
This year should see quite a heated battle for white.
In addition to van Garderen, several riders have a chance to ride not only into white, but also into the top-10 overall.
Others to watch include Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Peter Kennaugh (Sky), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
Another strong candidate will be Nairo Quintana, the highly vaunted Colombian who is making his Tour debut with Movistar. Like the others, he said he is not specifically targeting the white jersey.
“The first objective is to be there for Alejandro [Valverde],” he said Friday. “This is only my first Tour. I need to learn about the race. I want to do whatever the team asks of me. After that, we will see.”
That’s in sharp contrast to his compatriot Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who targeted the white jersey right from the start of the Giro d’Italia in May. The fight against Saxo-Tinkoff’s Rafa Majka went right down to the wire, with Betancur finally securing the white jersey through a blizzard on Tre Cime during the penultimate stage.
Of course, Betancur didn’t tell anyone from the outset of the Giro. And that’s the case in the Tour. No one’s going to tip off their rivals by openly declaring their intentions for white.
As van Garderen put it, if it’s there, they’ll take it. And being “there” means being in the heat of the battle for yellow.